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The Cobra: Memories of its First Ascent

Chad Wiggle and Jimmie Dunn in front of Dunn’s Volkswagen bus the day before they climbed the first ascent of The Cobra, Fisher Towers, Utah. For more stories of desert rat climbers at their best, read “The Illusion of Control,” by Chris Van Leuven. [Photo] Jimmie Dunn collection

It’s the middle of summer. I’m in the Fisher Towers with Betsi McKittrick and Chad Wiggle. We had just got down from climbing Ancient Art, my favorite Moab desert tower with its dusty chimney and classic corkscrew summit. Paul Sibley and Bill Roos had first climbed it 22 years before. The August air feels like an oven. Who in their right mind would want to climb in the Fisher Towers in this scorching heat? Nothing alive is moving except for us. Even the ants are lying low. At this time of year, to most people, this is a parched wasteland but to me in a way this may be the desert at its finest. We have all this dried mud and alien-looking rock to ourselves. We are totally committed and addicted to climbing desert towers.

For over 20 years I had hiked past this beautiful hoodoo at the base of Ancient Art, as did all the other Fisher Tower climbing veterans. Whimsical thoughts of climbing this tantalizing rock sculpture never seem to last. But on this day in the heat and solitude I ask Betsi and Chad if they want to give it a go. “It’ll go, let’s get on top.”

Betsi McKittrick, belayed by Chad Wiggle, atop Ancient Art on April 23, 1991. Later that day, Jimmie Dunn would become the first to scramble up the precarious Cobra. To take this photo, Dunn traversed over two other towers in the formation, freesoloing a 5.10 crack and lassoing a “hump” of rock to reach his perch. [Photo] Jimmie Dunn

With Betsi belaying me, I scramble up the first 20 feet of dried mud and cobble stones to the highest ledge, carrying just a few pieces of gear. Betsi sounds a little nervous when I ask her to change positions twice so that the rope would catch over the ledges if I fall. Now I’m nose to nose with the sketchy, compacted dry mud of the steeply overhanging neck. “This is weird and dicey.” I realize I need a long sling for pro. Of course we don’t have one.

Following park rules, Kid, my pitbull, is tied to a bush in the shade with a long leash made out of old, sun-bleached webbing. “Untie Kid’s leash and throw it up. It’s too hot for a dog to wander, and there is no one out here to care anyway.” Gingerly I step onto the small, sloping, sandy, dish-like footholds and balance like crazy to reach as high as possible with the leash. It takes a while to get the webbing secure around the six-foot diameter of the neck of the tower. I throw it around, catching it on cobblestones to wrap it in place. What the heck am I doing up here, how safe can this really be? But I settle myself down. It’s been here millions of years and there’s no way it’s going to fall down today with me on it.

After several attempts and only reaching a few feet above my dog’s leash, I don’t dare to run it out the 15 feet to the summit. Just standing there, feet burning, contemplating the moves is miserable. I hardly even want to touch the rock. I need a different plan. Using the sling for aid I drill a half-inch by three-and-a-half-inch hole and hammer in a sawed-off army angle. Going back down to the highest ledge to take a rest and drink some warm water, I get my psych up for the overhanging section. Climbing straight up past the dog leash and the drilled pin I mantle onto the sloping summit. As I roll over onto the capstone I just sort of lie there wondering if it could slide off to the west. After about five minutes my vibes tell me that the summit cap is way too heavy to slide. Now I am brave enough to stand up. Later I realize if the summit cap were going to slide off, it wouldn’t matter if I were sitting or standing!

Dunn, courage gathered, stands up on the summit of The Cobra. He estimates he climbed the tower around 100 times before it collapsed late last month.

Yee-haw! After 20 years I’m finally on top! Thinking about how to get the others up. The only way is to drill one baby angle and climb down so that I can belay Betsi and then Chad up. I always thought that this awesome hoodoo looked like a cobra poised to strike, so we name it “The Cobra.”

After climbing The Cobra close to a hundred times I always felt that its strength was questionable, although never dreamed it would fall down in my lifetime, I gave it a few hundred thousand years at the least. I have wonderful memories of good friends, talking and working through the moves over the years. A small bunch of us desert rat climbers enjoyed her immensely. I salute the beautiful rock that was The Cobra. She was a beauty–now in a new formation. To quote someone on the Internet, The Cobra “had a great life. May you rest in pieces.”